At the New Zealand International Film Festival: Ira Sachs and Hong Khaou portray unique relationships with deep sensitivity.
Concerned with an oft-overlooked side of the gay community, Ira Sachs’s Love Is Strange tells the story of an aging gay couple, Ben and George, in New York City, whose late marriage sets off a chain of events. George loses his job as a Catholic school music teacher, forcing the couple to find temporary refuge, separately. Ben moves in with his nephew and wife, sharing a bunk bed with their teenage son; George moves in with a couple of younger gay cops, sleeping on their couch. Not an ideal situation for anyone.
There are no traces of melodrama in this tale of family, aging, and generational-gaps. The direction never calls too much attention to itself—Sachs is happy for the audience to witness the events unfold in a quiet, observational manner. Its structure often recalls that of its spiritual predecessors, Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Sachs is clearly indebted to the earlier films but isn’t merely updating them with a gay twist. He is interested in a far more bittersweet retelling, heartwarming rather than heartbreaking, but never reducing the scenario to cloying sentimentality.
John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as Ben and George, playing the central aging couple, make an unexpected but nonetheless convincing pair. Both find a delicate sensitivity in their roles—Lithgow, in particular, mines surprising amounts of pathos and comedy from the most banal interactions. The authenticity and strength of the couple’s bond is never questioned or tested. We are simply asked to believe in their relationship as it is. And, for all intents and purposes, we do. There are few pleasures greater than witnessing the ease in which Lithgow and Molina inhabit this comfortable romance. Their separation becomes a test not only for them as a couple but for their respective friends and family too. In fact, it is Ben’s relationship with his nephew’s family that serves as the major backdrop for most of the film’s running-time. Sachs seems to be concerned by the way social awkwardness and familial obligation take their toll on those who play the role of host. The way people can carelessly alienate those they care about. But the characters are never judged for their all-too-human mistakes.
Labelling Love Is Strange as queer cinema is a misleading enterprise. Consider how the films of Yasujiro Ozu were considered “too Japanese” for English-speaking audiences upon initial release. Over-simplistic categorisation, such as Japanese or gay, often only undermines the universality of good storytelling. Perhaps a more accurate description would be to call it human cinema.
Hong Khaou’s Lilting is a remarkably delicate affair. Set in London, two very different characters, Richard (Ben Whishaw) and Chinese-Cambodian Junn (Cheng Pei-pei) grieve over the loss of Kai (Andrew Leung), the former’s lover and the latter’s son. Richard wishes to connect with Junn and assist her during this mournful period, but their bond is strained by the Junn’s ignorance of her son’s homosexuality.
Past and present, memories and flashbacks, are weaved seamlessly together throughout the film. The first scene is the most effective display of this, when Kai comes to visit Junn at her rest home. We are given a sense of a mother and son’s loving relationship that struggles to buckle under the weight of expectation. When overused, however, these dreamy flashbacks begin to feel repetitive, drilling information and emotional cues into our heads with diminishing returns. Andrew Leung’s subsequent appearances as Kai become less and less potent, lacking restraint in an otherwise controlled film.
The leads, Ben Whishaw and Cheng Pei-pei, are remarkable in their respective parts. They draw on their respective pain and instill each and every scene with a desperate longing. The performances lend themselves to creating authenticity and subtext that might not otherwise exist. Their faces carry the weight of the story more effectively than any of the dialogue in the script. Whishaw’s Richard, for instance, risks coming across as too perfect, too understanding, and the few emotional outbursts he has are too quickly recovered from and swept under the rug. Yet Whishaw provides an emotional vulnerability and nakedness that is a true rarity in male performers. His physicality, waifish and delicate, only seems to exacerbate this. Cheng Pei-pei is given the the opposite role to perform as Junn. She is stoney resilience, quick to put up walls. Her defenses seem impenetrable, hardened over years of experience. But those few glimpses of warmth she shares with us speak volumes. There is something in her performance that hints that Junn is far more aware than the other’s perceive.
Also integral to the story are Vann (Naomi Christie) who is hired as a translator and Junn’s fellow resident Alan (Peter Bowles) who serves as her minor love interest. Christie finds a way to inject Vann with some personality that might otherwise not have existed, making her character more than a simple plot device. Bowles does a good job as comic relief but his character ends up feeling mostly superfluous to the heart of the story.
Khaou has a tight grip on the emotions of the film, refusing to make it a cheap tearjerker. Nonetheless, I could hear the sound of sniffling in the audience as the credits rolled. For all its subtlety, though, I can’t help thinking it was understated to a fault. Staying true to its title, Lilting resolves with a gentle quaintness rather than a powerful bang. But in its more moving moments, Lilting reminds us of the power of compassion. For all our difficulties understanding one another, it isn’t language that separates us. As we all know, words are easy. Empathy is the hard part.